For baseball fans, it’s January 2nd

added 10/27/2003 by Willie B. Lakey

"Sometimes the lights all shining on me
Other times I can barely see
Lately it occurs to me
What a long strange trip it’s been"
- - - The Grateful Dead, Truckin’

When Robert Hunter first penned those lyrics 30-odd years ago for Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir and The Grateful Dead, he certainly wasn’t doing his best Nostradamus impersonation and looking forward to the 2003 baseball season. It just seems that way right now.

Right now it’s January 2nd for baseball fans. The Marlins topped the Yankees on Saturday night that was, in effect, New Year’s Eve for hardball addicts, and yesterday was January 1st, or Hangover Day. At least the return to Standard Time gave most of us an extra hour to sleep it off.

Florida’s triumph over New York ended one of the strangest trips I’ve ever taken in my 40-plus years as a baseball fan. Aside from maybe the ’69 Amazin’ Mets, the Marlins’ title ranks as the biggest upset in Major League Baseball in my mind. Many fans will no doubt disagree with me on that, and I will be one of the first to nod in agreement with many of them as they cite one team or another who pulled off in their minds equal or more astounding spills in the annals of the greatest game on earth. Heck, they could even start with the ’97 Marlins.

But for my money the 2003 season truly was the most extraordinary to date, including the most exciting postseason game-for-game that my thick and oft stubborn cranium can conjure up at the moment. Maybe I should’ve seen it coming a year ago when the Anaheim Angels won the 2002 crown in their own improbable fashion. Perhaps their World Series victory triggered it all. Using the word “Trigger” is so ironic since that was Roy Rogers’ horse and former Angels’ owner Gene Autry rode around on Champion. But then, I digress.

The strange, sometimes circuitous moves made in the offseason possibly should’ve prompted us all. Bartolo Colon and Jorge Nuñez went from Montreal to Chicago’s South Side in the same deal that sent Antonio Osuna and Delvis Lantigua from the White Sox to the Yankees that was also part of the same deal that saw Orlando Hernandez and a couple of million greenbacks change hands from the Yanks to the Pale Hose and then concluded with Hernandez, Rocky Biddle, Jeff Liefer and a big stack of Benjamin’s going to Montreal in return for the aforementioned Colon and Nuñez. Please don’t ask me to repeat that.

I would try and explain how Mike Hampton went from Colorado to Atlanta via Florida, but my knowledge of both geography and accounting is a bit weak, and I never truly comprehended that deal.

When Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez shocked most of the baseball world by accepting a one-year deal to play for the Marlins, I was among the majority who didn’t understand his logic at all. Now that it’s January 2nd in the baseball world, I think I understand it a little better.

Even Jack McKeon taking over the helm as the Marlins’ manager in early May was odd, with the office of baseball’s chief clown Bud Selig suggesting Florida didn’t follow MLB’s “minority hiring guidelines” when McKeon replaced Jeff Torborg in time to manage Florida for the first time on Mother’s Day. MLB’s chief operating officer Bob DuPuy first brought our attention to the matter when he said, “Bud’s looking into it.”

For baseball fans, four more frightening words have never been spoken than, “Bud’s looking into it.”

Bud has presumably had enough time to look into the matter, and I’m quite certain he’s reached the same conclusion as I, that being McKeon is indeed a minority himself, a throwback manager to the days of pitching, speed and defense who is now the oldest manager in World Series history and the only manager this season who took his team all the way to the very apex of baseball’s mountain. Talk about your minority, McKeon’s in a group of one at this time.

Coupled with the funny bounces that baseball seemed to take all season was the utter disappointment in my own team, the Astros. I’ve watched this team since its inception in 1962, and there’s never been a more frustrating season witnessed by Houston fans. The club got out of the gate in pretty good fashion, offering up excitement to the utmost degree in the opening week of action with three last at bat victories. But the season quickly went south after that, and despite a no-hitter at Yankee Stadium authored by a half-dozen arms in June and the fact the club was on top of the NL Central and playing its best ball up until the last week of September, the eventual second place finish to the Cubs by a single game left such a bitter taste in my mouth, it will take the entire offseason and then some to expel the tang.

Speaking of tastes, how about the Salty performance this year by Los Angeles reliever Eric Gagne and the near Triple Crown numbers of St. Louis slugger Albert Pujols? Two years ago, Gagne’s shift to the bullpen was seen as a last ditch effort to find a niche for a guy whose career was on the verge of being over before it even started. It was also two years ago that we all wondered if Pujols’ rookie season was a fluke or portent of things to come.

Bill Mueller’s AL batting crown was yet another one to put in the Salty column, as was Roy Halladay’s job on Toronto’s mound. The Detroit Tigers also had a Salty season, but it was more like the feeling of salt being rubbed into a wound and not the wonderful taste of Salt on an order of fries.

Staying with the theme, my pick for the Sour Story of the Year is a tie between the continuing saga of the Montreal/Puerto Rico Expos and the ongoing steroid scandal. Others might pick the ugliness that was Game 4 of the ALCS between the Yankees and Red Sox or Randal Simon’s assault on a sausage in Milwaukee. Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins probably have a few Sour feelings for those who run the Hall of Fame while Curt Schilling and a few of his fellow pitchers would probably nominate Questec for this season’s most Sour development.

Sweet has so many deserving candidates, starting with McKeon, Pudge and the Marlins. Comebacks by Esteban Loaiza, Rod Beck, Wilson Alvarez and Richard Hidalgo were also Sweet. The fact Rupert Murdoch and FOX are about to lose their grip on the Dodgers is Sweet news to my ears. And though it didn’t pan out in the end, the Red Sox and Cubs getting so close to delivering the world a Series matchup of the game’s top tough-luck teams has to at least fit into the category of Sweet-&-Sour.

Speaking of sweet-&-sour, researchers suggest there is a fifth taste we all have, that being Monosodium Glutamate. I’m not sure I buy into that, but let’s assume it’s true and give our MSG (Most Serious Gaffe) of the Year Award to that poor soul in Chicago who unintentionally became part of the Cubs’ demise by simply standing up in his seat and trying to catch a foul pop.

Yes, the 2003 season was certainly flavorful. Maybe the bitter taste left by the collapse of my Astros can be tempered if I think of the 2003 season as a big pot of chili or goulash or stew. It’s very rare that people like all of the individual ingredients that go into one of those delicious concoctions. But blend them all together and those same folks will usually ask for seconds.

There’s another stanza to The Grateful Dead song I started this all with that goes like this:

"Arrows of neon and flashing marquees out on Main Street
Chicago, New York, Detroit and it’s all the same street
Your typical city involved in a typical daydream
Hang it up and see what tomorrow brings"

Happy New Year, fellow baseball fans. Enjoy the offseason while you can and start building an appetite for the next pot of chili MLB will serve us all soon enough. Pitchers and catchers report in about 110 days.

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